A Sense of Rebellious Ecstasy: Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto
by Maile Chapman

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto
BY Maile Chapman
(Graywolf Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“In a remote, piney wood in Finland stands a convalescent hospital called Suvanto, a curving concrete example of austere Scandinavian design. It is the 1920s, and the patients, all women, seek relief from ailments real and imagined. On the lower floors are the stoic Finnish women; on the upper floors are foreign women of privilege — the ‘up-patients.’ They are tended to by head nurse Sunny Taylor, an American who has fled an ill-starred life only to retreat behind a mask of crisp professionalism.

On a late-summer day a new patient arrives on Sunny’s ward — a faded, irascible former ballroom-dance instructor named Julia Dey. Sunny takes it upon herself to pierce the mystery of Julia’s reserve. Soon, Julia’s difficulty and tightly coiled anger place her at the center of the ward’s tangled emotional life.

As summer turns to fall, and fall to a long, dark winter, the patients hear rumors about changes being implemented at Suvanto by an American obstetrician, Dr. Peter Weber, who is experimenting with a new surgical stitch. Their familiar routine threatened, the women are not happy (they were not happy before), and the story’s escalating menace builds to a terrifying conclusion.”

It is rare for a novel to accomplish a collective cry, to successfully craft a communal emotional experience while still preserving a distinctive narrative thread about several individual characters. Maile Chapman’s Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto achieves this feat through a clever handling of narrative perspective, sliding between a mysterious, unsettling first person plural and an intensely intimate, third person omniscient. The blend of these two narrative voices places the reader just between participant and spectator. With its we, the book forces a certain complicity:

After a shock we reassure ourselves in low voices, while others continue passing quietly all around. Routine continues, and we take encouragement from all the comforts that give peace, without now disguising the fact that we are being looked after, and looked at, constantly. That is how it felt: we hoped the routine would explain.

— p.199

This complicity would begin to feel contrived if sustained for any length of time, but Chapman mediates the feeling by shifting into the omniscient. The shift is quite smooth because Chapman’s third person narrator is an integral member of the novel’s cast, with opinions and sly revelations, asides and even gentle mocking.

There is an appropriate sense of disquiet created by this narrative shifting, heightened by the novel’s setting at a hospital in the remote Finnish countryside. The story concerns the hospital’s “up-patients,” women with presumably fragile emotional health who come to spend the winter on the uppermost floor. Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto belongs to these eccentric creatures with their unconventional habits, complicated perceptions, and delicate mental health.

The novel centers on three women: Julia, a new resident; Pearl, a repeat patient; and Sunny, the chief nurse, an American who chose this remote location in Finland to escape her own painful past. With these three women, set against the background of the entire group of “up-patients,” Chapman gets to the heart of one of the mysteries of human connection — how shared experience and space, no matter how short-lived, no matter how artificial, can create powerful and even dangerous bonds.

Calling Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto a literary thriller is a slight exaggeration. There is a series of troubling events, an unexplained death and a final tragedy, but the novel isn’t interested in marching its readers through a sequence of well-written mysteries. It is more preoccupied with exposing and exploring certain troubling truths of human nature. However, despite the relative subtlety of the plotted action, there is an overwhelming sense of escalation, of movement toward some final, inevitable calamity.

The novel pulses with a disconcerting interior violence. Small hints of cruelty, moments of desperation, ominous foreshadowing. Echoes of the darker side of the human psyche. Chapman skillfully renders these small moments of threatened violence, when a person’s control over their innermost demons wears thin:

And, despite herself, Sunny momentarily thinks of pushing the door shut, crushing those little fingers against the frame. Breaking all of them, surely. Instead, she says, “It’s better if you don’t make this a difficult process.”

— p. 21

And again later, when the novel’s story has finally started to gain momentum:

Now he is walking in the hall quite naturally, as if he will never leave it. He turns his head so solidly attached to his shoulders, and there is a nagging in Sunny’s brain — perhaps a premonition of things to come — an observation of the contour where Dr. Peter’s head would be most efficiently separated from his body. There is an invisible red line sketched below his chin, curving where his head would be most easily scooped away from his neck.

— p. 153

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is also preoccupied with female sexuality. All of the “up-patients,” without exception, have in some way failed sexually. Julia arrives with a longtime undiagnosed sexually transmitted disease and a prolapsed uterus. Pearl is unable to achieve intimacy with her husband. Even Sunny, presumably one of the novel’s healthy individuals, is so frightened of childbirth she becomes nearly catatonic when asked to assist with a delivery.

Sexual dysfunctionality seems to be the main reason for their voluntary seclusion. It is almost as if this blemish on their femininity has made them incapable of functioning in even the most unrelated situation. Their only response is to remove themselves from society, to gather together with other examples of broken womanhood and nurture their various eccentricities. But no matter how voluntary their confinement may appear, each woman harbors a quiet rage. Deep, hidden rage is where one of the novel’s most successful elements comes into the discussion — the echoes of Euripedes’ tragic play The Bacchae. There is the chorus-like we, there is the gathering of “mad” women off in the forest, suspiciously sexual and deranged, both misunderstood and feared, and there is the ultimate act of frenzied, nearly unconscious violence. Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is not a reinterpretation of The Bacchae, but the reference is so sharp and so deftly accomplished that it infuses the novel with a sense of rebellious ecstasy, inciting the reader to approve and even revel in its ultimate tragedy.

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